Shetland Folk Festival

Feature by Chris Silver | 15 Jun 2006

It's early on a Saturday morning at the festival club, and I find my feet along with hundreds of others crammed around the tiny main stage, pounding the floor to the irresistible harmonies and driving rhythms of home grown folk heroes Fiddler's Bid. The entire room shakes with a collective rhythm that seems like it will never stop. The intimacy with the musicians is so profound, yet the sound is big enough to fill any stadium, and for a moment it seems as if this may well last forever as reel after reel builds further exhilaration among the crowd.

The next night I feel ready to repent, never touch alcohol again and become the next Billy Graham. This is thanks to the glorious southern gospel light of No Hiding Place, by Tim and Molly O'Brien, who along with most of their family managed to turn a Shetland leisure centre, serving as the festival's biggest venue, into a southern church hall.

However, I later happen to encounter them in a less holy light at the festival club. Along with visiting Californian harp player Tom Ball, a Slovakian bass player, and a few Shetlanders they start an impromptu blues session in a corner on the way to the toilets. It was there that I heard music, albeit played slightly drunkenly, that anywhere else in the world I'd have to pay over twenty quid to see.

Encounters such as these reveal the Shetland Folk Festival's true spirit. Both performer and audience clearly have a brilliant time throughout the whole weekend, and in the definitively non-exclusive atmosphere of the festival club (anyone with a tenner to spare can become a member) the line between musician and music lover is blurred if not non-existent.

Since Pete Seeger's Newport days there has been a strong emphasis on "mixing things up" at folk festivals and this is another area in which the Shetland experience excels. This year saw the likes of Dougie Maclean appearing alongside the impeccable and sultry Texas Swing of Elana James and the Continental two. Although Elana herself, who collaborated with Bob Dylan last year, provides a magnetic draw with her fiddle and voice, upright bassist Beau Sample's stunning bass solos took the meaning of swing to new levels.

At the other end of the folk spectrum were Séamus Begley and Tim Edey, an accordion and guitar duo who produced a remarkable performance with minimal instrumentation and a good dose of Irish banter. Meanwhile, Scotland's folk supergroup, Session A9 trafficked a rocked up fiddle sound with them on the twelve hour boat journey to Shetland, and even on an island which probably has more fiddles per head among the population than anywhere else, managed to get a raucous reception from their audience. Along with the Tannahill Weavers, and STMA band of the year Back of the Moon these three groups provided a brilliant representation of the cream of Scottish traditional music.

Although the Folk festival is undoubtedly the high point of Shetland's musical year, the summer months remain filled with great music heading to the islands.

The Shetland Blues Festival takes place from the 16th to the 18th of June.

The Johnsmass Foy, Shetland's summer festival takes place between the 16th to 26th of June.